The Vietnamese professor fighting to end plastic pollution

Climate change is humanity’s biggest challenge over the next 50 years, and tackling plastic pollution is a major part of that.

Not only does it stick around in the environment for hundreds of years after its use, but it also contributes to global warming thanks to the fossil fuels needed to create it.

The good news is that Vietnam is playing its part in the fight for the environment, and a professor from Việt Nam RMIT University is leading the way. Nguyễn Hữu Nhân doubles a career teaching marketing and entrepreneurship with a role as an environmental activist, and his latest efforts have landed him a coveted prize from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The UNDP challenge

Formed way back in 1965, the UNDP is one of key tenets of the UN, working to reduce poverty and inequality in 170 countries. Part of this strategy is to help countries achieve sustainability targets, known as SDGs, in a bid to fight the effects of climate change and meet long-term targets by 2030.

The UNDP do this through a series of specialized programs, such as Impact Aim, which aim to tackle different aspects of the climate crisis. It also works in tandem with other major environment projects such as the UK’s £100 million Climate Action fund, which is funded by the British National Lottery.

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While Vietnam’s lotteries don’t provide the same level of funding, the country’s Impact Aim program has proven to be the financial catalyst for many sustainable ventures, several of which have fallen under Professor Nhân’s control in his role as leading activist.

Professor Nhân’s campaign

 Born and raised in the USA, Nhân studied business and marketing before moving back to his parents’ homeland, and it was this background that gave him the tools to think up extremely effective eco-friendly solutions.

He set up his own non-profit organization, Việt Nam Clean and Green, a partner of the Zero Waste Alliance and vehicle for many of Nhân’s ideas. The venture started with community clean-ups in several Vietnamese cities and soon started to look at ways of limiting plastic use. Reusing plastic containers was central to this, but Nhân noticed that it was difficult for people to refill them with the brands they wanted, and often impossible for them to get to a venue to do so.

Working on the concept of ‘if the people won’t come to the party, then take the party to the people’, Nhân and his team set up a mobile site that travelled around cities, refilling containers with the brands that people were looking for. The idea proved extremely popular and led to the event that would attract the attention of the UNDP itself.

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Refill Day

$18,000 is a lot of money, but ImpactAim still needed to find ventures that would spend it wisely. Professor Nhân’s Refill Day met their criteria, offering a convenient way for people to reuse their plastic containers and cut down on waste. Its effective marketing campaign has also attracted impact investors interested in innovative green ideas in the ASEAN region.

Volunteers visit homes, restaurants and shops with a Refill Day mobile site and encourage locals to refill. Thanks to a collaboration between the project and several major brands, they can distribute customer favorites such as Sunsilk shampoo and OMO detergent. The aim is to get people used to filling up old bottles so it becomes a regular habit – as opposed to simply buying single-use plastic.

Nhân launched the project in Ha Long Bay last year and is targeting Ho Chi Minh City next. With the support of the government and major enterprises ranging from KPMG to Vietnam Silicon Valley, Refill Day looks set to become a regular event, adding new brands to its refill options each year.

But it’s not just the environment that will benefit from Refill Day. Nhân is seeking funding to develop business management applications that will allow the event to expand and provide job opportunities for the local population. One example is working with Women’s Unions to place refill sites in poor neighborhoods and employing local women. This will develop a two-pronged approach of tackling plastic waste and unemployment as the project grows.

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What next for Vietnam’s war on plastic?

Refill Day and ImpactAim are part of a wider program called the Ending Plastic Pollution Innovation Challenge (EPPIC). Targeting ASEAN countries, its solutions aim to have a profound effect on plastic waste in the region. As one of the ten nations involved, Vietnam could benefit from some ground-breaking new sustainable products including drones to track plastic waste flow and important educational campaigns that change people’s attitudes.

While outside of the top 10 worst countries in the world for plastic pollution, Vietnam still has a major battle on its hands to significantly reduce the 3.27 million tonnes it produces each year. Being part of EPPIC is crucial in this fight, and having determined individuals like Professor Nhân leading the way is the nation’s best hope of a greener future.

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